It had been a long time since Tom Brady had seen real action on a football field.
It was 213 days, to be exact, between the Patriots' playoff beatdown at the hands of the Jets and the quarterback's first preseason action of 2011, which came Thursday night in Tampa. In between, there was an interminable lockout, and while he was able to get some occasional work in with his teammate in an informal setting, there were no pads and no opponents.
But in Thursday’s 31-14 crush job against Tampa Bay (click here for the complete recap), Brady finally had the chance to indulge his competitive side, and went out on the field at Raymond James Stadium like a man bent on making up for lost time. The reigning NFL MVP depantsed the Buccaneers in one half of action, going 11-for-19 for 118 yards and tossing two touchdowns, one to Aaron Hernandez and the other to Chad Ochocinco. He was in complete control when he was in the ballgame, engineering four first-half scoring drives on the Patriots’ six first-half possessions … and getting angry when New England had to punt the ball away on its other two drives.
“I mean, we expect to go out there and score,” Brady said flatly. “I’m sure we’re going to -- I’m sure I’m going to see the film tomorrow and be disappointed with some of the things that I wish I probably could have done better. We've just got to build on it and understand there were things we did wrong and try to make the corrections.”
"I thought he did some good things," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Brady. "We had some other things that weren’t so good. But Tom did a good job moving the offense, [running] the team, I thought we had a good tempo out there. [But] I think there’s some things he’s got to sharpen up on, too."
Brady’s intensity — and vengeance — caught the young Bucs by surprise.
"I’m telling you, man, they came out, they’d turn around [out of the] huddle, snap, 'Oh, there’s the [middle linebacker]. Go!' " Tampa defensive lineman Gerald McCoy told Tampa’s 620 WDAE Radio after the game. "I was like, 'Dang! Um, Mr. Brady, can we line up?' He didn’t care. He was like, 'You’re not going to line up.' When we turned around one time I checked back around and my hand was going to the grass and they were like, 'Hut!' And I said, 'Nooooo!' "
To be sure, there were things that needed addressing from New England’s perspective: There was some early season rustiness, penalties, timing issues and a dropped pass here or there. Rob Gronkowski dropped a pass and took a bad penalty. There were clearly issues between Brady and Chad Ochocinco. But for an offense that has now scored 78 points in two preseason games, making note of those problems essentially appears to be nitpicking at this point.
“I think that there’s a lot of things that I need to do better out there. I think there’s a lot of things that we as an offense need to do better,” Brady said. “I thought the defense really got us the ball in great field position early in the first quarter. We took advantage of some of the penalties that they had. We got the ball, we got it moving, made some good runs, and made the plays in the red area when we needed to.
“[But there are] still too many things where we need to do a better job. We’ll all go in there and see the film, and see things that we screwed up and hopefully go out there and try and improve on them.”
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night.
JEROD MAYO CAN GET AFTER THE QUARTERBACK
The Patriots again offered multiple defensive looks, and they appeared to shuffle linebacker Jerod Mayo all over the field through the first half. Mayo blitzed on several occasions and came away with two sacks, five tackles and three quarterback hits. After Mayo started his professional career as an inside linebacker in the 3-4, the idea of Mayo as an attacking linebacker coming off the edge in a 4-3 defense should be a relatively terrifying prospect for opposing offenses in 2011.
"It felt pretty good, but you know, anything to help this team win. Wherever coach [Bill] Belichick and [safeties coach] Matty [Patricia] want to put me, I'm willing to do. I just like winning games and playing football,” Mayo told reporters after the game. "I feel comfortable going into my fourth year, and coach Belichick, he's doing different things with me. Whatever that ends up being, I'm willing to do, whether it be making the big plays or making a bunch of tackles. Whatever these guys want me to do, I'll do."
“I’m not sure how many times he blitzed," Belichick said of Mayo, who had only 3.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. "Jerod’s a good player. He really does everything pretty well. There’s not a lot of weak points in his game. He’s worked hard on his blitzing, his man coverage, his tackling, his pass defense, his run defense, I mean, he works hard at everything. I’m happy for whatever success he has because he works as hard as anybody to earn it.”
ANDRE CARTER IS ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Just as Mayo spent a lot of time in the Tampa Bay backfield, Carter — who was also seeing his first action of the preseason Thursday against the Bucs — showed a relentless motor, blazing past tackle Donald Penn on several occasions and getting after the quarterback frequently throughout the first half. (Rather remarkably, he wasn’t credited with a single thing in the official NFL gamebook — not a tackle, quarterback hit or tackle for loss. But he created plenty of havoc for the Tampa Bay passing game all night.)
The Patriots have two 4-3 pass-rushing defensive ends on the roster in Carter and Mark Anderson. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the snaps between Carter and Anderson will be divided up, but in a relatively short time, the former Redskin has certainly made his case.
THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER
Last season, New England's third-down defense was absolutely atrocious — the Patriots couldn't get off the field, allowing teams to convert 47.1 percent of their third-down chances. But through two preseason games this year, New England's defense is holding opponents to 5-for-25 on third down. (The Bucs were 2-for-12 on third down against the Patriots and 1-for-8 in the first half.) It’s a relatively small sample size, but a sign that things could be different this season for the New England defense.
The third-down defense was part of a larger defensive effort on Thursday night — at one point late in the first half, Tampa Bay had 17 total offensive yards 65 penalty yards. In all, the Patriots held the Buccaneers to just 73 total yards and four first downs in the first two quarters. Tampa Bay’s starting offense was on the field for five series and had zero points and one rush yard, stymied by a swarming, aggressive defense powered by the likes of Mayo and Carter.
“We’ll take a look at it on the film,” Belichick said. “It looked like we had a little bit, but we had trouble chasing these fast quarterbacks. Looked like we made a few plays”
“Coach wanted to come out aggressive,” Mayo said. “It was a good game plan, and we executed pretty well.”
CHAD OCHOCINCO REMAINS A WORK IN PROGRESS
It was rough going early on for the new wide receiver, as he was unable to connect with Brady on the first two pass attempts. In all, he was targeted four times in his preseason debut and came away with two catches for 14 yards and one touchdown. However, he also got his bell run coming over the middle when linebacker Mason Foster crushed him on a helmet-to-helmet hit with just over 10 minutes left in the first half. (The hit drew a flag, and will likely result in a letter from the league office for Foster.)
Regardless, it was a positive night for Ochocinco.
"It felt good to finally get out there. I'm behind the 8-ball tremendously, though," he said. "There is a difference from practicing to being in the game. I have to get to game tempo. That's about it. But it felt good. It's a start, to finally get a feel for it, the tempo, the way Tom [Brady] operates. It's like a machine out there, and I'm that one part that isn't up to speed with everybody else."
“He’s really finding a role for himself," Brady said. "He’s been practicing hard, he’s very competitive. It’s a good group we have out there. We’ve just got to continue to build. All of us, it’s just, we haven’t played in a long time so everyone’s a bit rusty out there. It will be good to get back to practice this week so we can really take what we learned from the game and try to get better in practice.”
Early in the first half, Ochocinco could be seen having a rather animated conversation with Belichick. (Actually, Ochocinco was listening and Belichick was doing most of the talking.)
“I’m just trying to coach our team and get them to see if I can get them to play better," Belichick said when he was asked about the exchange with the receiver. "Some things we didn’t cover that came up in the game, so just try to do the best I can to help our team improve. We’ve still got a long way to go, we’ve got a lot of work to do, and I have to do a better job, too.”
As for the animated conversation with Belichick, Ochocinco said, "Just coaching, back and forth, which I like, which I need."
RYAN MALLETT SUFFERED A BIT OF A REALITY CHECK
After soaring through the preseason opener last week against Jacksonville when he went 12-for-19 for 164 yards and one touchdown with a quarterback rating of 108.2, the rookie quarterback took a few steps back in his second preseason contest. Simply put, he started the second half in relief of Brady and suffered some adversity: He tossed New England's only interception of the night when he overthrew a tight end and Tampa defensive back Elbert Mack took it all the way back for a 69-yard return for a touchdown. (Mallett was flattened trying to get after the return.)
In addition, he was sacked once and generally looked a little like a rookie when he was out there against Tampa's backup defense. He did rally, putting together a seven-play, 31-yard drive that ended with a 44-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski, New England’s lone scoring drive in the second half. In the end, he went 9-of-14 for 71 yards — not the best performance, but a learning experience for the youngster who figures to see a slight dip in playing time in the third preseason game next week at Detroit.
IT WAS AN UP AND DOWN NIGHT FOR THE RUNNING GAME
It was mostly good news for the New England running backs. First, the good: The Patriots pretty much ran the ball as much as they wanted to for the entire night. Using a combination of Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley and Sammy Morris, the Patriots rushed for an impressive 200 yards on 36 carries, an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
Woodhead (five carries, 63 yards) and Green-Ellis (11 rushes, 51 yards) got the bulk of the carries out of the gate and set the tone early. Woodhead provided the highlight with a game-high 29-yard carry in the first half when he made some big yardage on a busted play — he went right, saw the play get blown up, and darted back left, seeing an opening and taking the ball all the way down to the Tampa 22, setting up the Patriots' first touchdown of the night.
Then things got a little dodgy in the second half: Ridley came on in relief of the starters, and while he ended up carrying the ball for a game-high 84 yards, he did put the ball on the ground, giving it to the Bucs. (For a team that was as careful with the ball as New England was last week, it was a rare sight.) And then, while working in punt coverage, Woodhead was absolutely leveled by Tampa’s Devin Holland midway through the fourth quarter. There were a few scary moments as he wobbled to the sideline — with plenty of help — but after the game, he told reporters he was OK.
“I saw him in the locker room, he seemed all right," said Belichick, who looked angry after the shot. "I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”
“He got hit pretty hard, [but] that’s football. There’s guys moving fast out there, especially on punt returns," Brady said. "He just turned his head and the guy really gave it to him good. Like I said, he’s a tough guy, I know everyone’s worried about him as his teammates would be, but hopefully he’s OK."
STARTING NATE SOLDER WASN'T A BIG A DEAL AS SOME HAD MADE IT OUT TO BE
With no Matt Light at left tackle, there was some initial trepidation about starting Brady for the first time in the preseason with a rookie at left tackle, but Nate Solder — who played well into the second half — managed to hold his ground and play very well Thursday night against the Bucs. The first-round pick out of Colorado yielded one sack, which came with two minutes left in the first half when Tampa's Tim Crowder beat him to the inside. (The second came in the second half on Mallett.) Granted, Solder got lots of help from tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Will Yeatman, who were sent in motion to give him a hand when needed, but most of the time, he did well on his own.
Overall, the rest of the starting offensive line was on the field for the first half, and did its part in helping the Patriots roll up a 28-0 halftime lead. The running game had 117 yards in the first half and Brady had a 111.3 quarterback rating after two quarters.
“It was a good night," Brady said. "They always do a great job, they take a lot of pride in that. It’s a group that’s been together for a while now — excluding Nate, who’s stepped in — but they fight hard. I thought we ran the ball really well, we stayed out of negative plays for the most part, and when you’re able to stay on track like that and put a bunch of good plays together, you usually get in the end zone.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE THIN AT SAFETY
The Patriots lost Bret Lockett in the first half, as the safety went down in the second quarter with what appeared to be a groin injury. New England was already thin at the position, but the loss of Lockett for an extended stretch leaves them with just three full-time, healthy safeties in Brandon Meriweather, Sergio Brown and Patrick Chung. (James Sanders and Josh Barrett remain on the shelf, and for the second straight preseason game, converted wide receiver Buddy Farnham was at the position late in the contest.)
IN THEIR FIRST TASTE OF A SIMULATED "GAME WEEK," THE PATRIOTS RESPONDED NICELY
The tone and tenor of training camp shifted this past week, as the Patriots clearly started to move from teaching mode that pervades the start of camp into game preparation. First, there was “card work” — designed to give either the offense or defense a good taste of what to expect that week. It meant that in much of the 11-on-11 work, prior to the snap, an assistant coach held up a card diagramming a play and that side would go through the motions of simulating an opponent.
Second, there was an increased physical nature in practice, with some real hitting. (The Pat Chung shot on Aaron Hernandez, which came earlier this week, remains the biggest hit of camp this far.) Those two elements gave rookies and many of the younger players a feel for what game prep is really like, and that should continue this week as the Patriots head to Detroit for the third preseason game a week from Saturday — the one when the intensity level really starts to ratchet up and players get as close as they’re going to get to regular-season action.
“We got a good evaluation of our conditioning down here. It was a good warm night, so I think we were able to see a lot of things,” Belichick said of the Patriots, who have just over three weeks before they’ll return to the heat of Florida for the regular-season opener against Miami on Sept. 12. “We’ve got a lot of work to do — there’s a lot of things we need to sharpen up. But I think we played competitively, and we’ve got a few things we can build on here, too.
“[We'll] get back out there,” he added. “We’ve got a good long week this week getting ready for Detroit, so we’ll be able to hopefully clean up a few loose ends and continue to take another step in our preparations for the regular season.”